If you wish to grow tons of food cheaply but don’t have garden space, try my patio method. You’ll need a patio with a roof, so that you can attach a rope to the rafters or ceiling. If your patio faces south, west or east, you can easily grow a garden in it.
The garden in the drawing is very small, just 6’x6′. If you have a patio this size, you can grow between 9 and 18 climbing plants such as tomatoes, peppers, squash or cucumbers. If you grow tomatoes, you can produce enough to provide spaghetti sauce, tomato paste and other essentials.
1. Five-gallon, food grade buckets. Set the buckets anywhere on the edge of the patio, where they will receive the most sun. You may place buckets within an inch apart, to use every inch of available space. A nationwide home improvement chain sells the buckets at $3.49 apiece when you buy more than five at once. Some people say that they can get them free from restaurants, although I’ve never had luck with that. If you buy them, you will find them in the paint department; these have a bright yellow sticker that tells you they are appropriate for food and grain storage. Make certain that you buy only food-grade buckets if you want to grow a chemical-free garden. These buckets will last for about 10 years if you take them in at the end of the season and don’t expose them to long freezes.
2. Buy enough rope to make at least five rows of horizontal lengths along the section of patio that will house your garden. In addition, you will need to have enough rope to throw vertical lengths over your rafters (or fasten them in some other way to the ceiling) and then weave down and tie each horizontal length. My garden is about 24 feet long and I used nearly 500 feet of rope. You can buy macramé cord from the craft store or even a plain, strong twine will do. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Make sure it will hold quite a bit of weight; thin, weak cord will spell disaster when your plants are heavy with fruit.
3. Garden soil to fill buckets. You’ll need approximately one bag (2 cubic foot) of soil for every 3 or 4 buckets. If you have good garden soil, you can use your own as long as you are sure it is pest and weed free. I buy my garden soil at a chain store and pay about 4 dollars per bag.
4. Organic fertilizer. My favorite is Jobe’s organic fertilizer spikes for vegetables. It comes in a bag of 50 small spikes. Although the instructions say to use four per plant all at once, I use two per each plant (i.e., each container) and it seems to work well. Half way through the growing season, add two more to each container.
5. Seeds or plants. If you use seeds, place three per container. When they start to grow, keep the most robust seedling and snip the others with a pair of scissors. Take care not to nick the one you keep. If you use plants, select organic varieties and plant one per container. Google “heirloom” seeds or plants in order to find selections that are not genetically modified. Plants that work well for this type of container garden include all of the climbing plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, small melons, cucumbers, squash, beans, eggplant, etc.
6. Small rocks or pebbles, enough to place a layer 1-2″ thick in the bottom of each bucket.
Weaving the net:
Tie a rope to one support beam of your patio, about two feet above the floor. Pull it across the length of your patio, to the other end, and then tie it off. If you have a middle support beam, tie it onto that for more stability, and then continue to the other end and tie it there, too. You will note that, at this point, there is nothing to keep it held up in that position. We’ll fix that later. Now tie another horizontal rope about 12″ above the first, or three feet above the ground. Tie it in the same manner as the first. Continue to do that until you have used five lengths of rope. Your last horizontal rope line should be about six feet off the ground.
Now comes the fun part. Throw a rope over the rafter at one end of the patio. (If you don’t have a rafter or beam that you can throw a rope over, you’ll have to screw hooks into the ceiling beam and tie the vertical ropes to those. Here we use the throw and tie method, since it’s cheaper.) Once you’ve got the rope over the beam, tie it securely to the beam. The rope will hang down vertically. Tie the vertical length to the first horizontal rope, which will hold that horizontal rope in place and keep it from sagging when it is filled with fruit. Then tie the same rope to the second horizontal rope, then the third, then the fourth, and then finish it off by tying the last length of horizontal rope to it.
You will need to throw vertical ropes over the rafters about every 6 inches, and then proceed to tie it to all of the horizontal ropes, thus creating a net for the plants. It will look something like the photo shown below.
Once you have done all the horizontal and vertical ropes, make sure that they are tight and strong. Tug the rope briskly to make sure that nothing needs shoring up. The rafters are strong enough to keep your fruit safe, but the strength of the twine will ultimately determine the success of your garden.
As the plants grow, they will reach upward and grasp onto the rope. In time, they will fill in the whole rope net and during the summer, you will not only have fruits to pick off your patio, but you will have welcome cool shade all summer long. This may also lower your electric bill, since you will not have the sun beating down on your patio and through your windows or patio doors.
Planting the garden:
1. Drill holes into the bottom of the buckets, about four or five randomly placed holes will do. Make sure they are large enough that a small droplet of water can easily pass, but not so large that dirt will fall out of them.
2. Fill the buckets with a layer of rocks and pebbles, 1-2″ thick. Even out the layer so that it will provide drainage for the plants.
3. Fill the buckets 3/4 full with dirt. If you are using seeds rather than plants, fill them 5/6 full.
4. Water the dirt in the buckets, making sure that the dirt is thoroughly soaked but not waterlogged. If you add enough water so that it takes about a minute to soak completely into the soil, you’ve got it right. This will encourage root growth, and deep roots are the key to successful planting.
4. If you are using plants, I prefer the ones grown in cow pots, or in their own potting material, so that you do not need to take it out of the pot to transplant. This will prevent transplant shock. Place the pot on top of the dirt layer in your bucket, and then add dirt around the plant on all sides and fill in the bucket to make the soil level with the top of the plant.
5. If you are using seed, plant three seeds and then cover with between 1/4 and 1″ of soil, depending upon the seed type. (Small seeds usually require shallower depths; larger seed normally requires deeper depths, but check your seed packet to make certain.)
6. Add two fertilizer spikes to each pot and stick them down with your finger to where the top of the spikes are at least an inch below the soil.
7. Water lightly. Try not to get the leaves wet, but rather, wet the soil until it is thoroughly damp but not waterlogged (water is not visible after one minute).
Watering may be tricky for container gardens, because the amount of water will depend upon the weather. I water deeply but infrequently, to encourage plant growth. However, there are times when you must water more often, as in period of dry, blistering heat. Here in the desert where I live, I may water every day during the summer if the plants seem stressed. In cooler weather, do not water more often than once every three days.
When you water, avoid sprinkling the leaves, which could lead to disease. Water underneath the leaves and soak the soil thoroughly. You’ll know you’ve watered enough if the water takes close to a minute before it disappears entirely. Don’t be tempted to water again unless the top inch or two of the soil is very dry. Stick your finger into the soil to check for moisture, or if you are still unsure, buy a moisture meter. The device will tell you exactly when to water.
Your plants will wilt if they get too much water; they will droop or shrivel if they get too little. Try to maintain the balance between the two.
Gnats and other bugs can cause a great deal of problems for your plants. If you want to keep growing organically but can’t stand the little buggers, buy a large container of diatomaceous earth. This is very safe for humans, but you’ll still have to be careful with it because it is deadly for bugs, including beneficial bugs. Sprinkle the diatomaceous earth only on the surface of the soil, where the bad bugs are likely to breed. Take care not to apply it to leaves and especially the flowers, since it may kill the bees that you need to pollinate your fruit. Diatomaceous earth works on all bugs with an exoskeleton. It is made up of tiny seashells with razor sharp edges that will cut through exoskeletons. Don’t worry, it won’t cut you or your plants unless you try to force it into your skin.
Some people use a spray bottle with soap to spray white flies, but I don’t think it works that well and I do worry (perhaps needlessly) about the plants soaking up detergent. I’ve had more success by covering a bright yellow sheet of poster board with a thin layer of petroleum jelly. Slather it over the poster board and hang it near the plants with the white fly problem. Within a day or two, you should see white flies stuck to it. Change as necessary.
On the other side of the spectrum, the lack of bees can cause your flowers to shrivel and die without producing fruit. Most plants have both male and female flowers. You can tell the females because they have small bumps at the base of their flowers. If there are no bees available to pollinate your plants as they flower, you’ll have to do it yourself. All you need is a cotton swab such as a Q-tip. Take the swab and gently brush the inside of each flower. If you can’t distinguish between the male and female flowers, don’t worry. Bees flit from flower to flower without worrying about whether they are hitting them in perfect order, male and female. If you brush each flower with the same cotton swab, you are certain to get the pollen mixed together fairly well. Use the same swab as you are going through all your flowers of the same type of plant, i.e., for all your tomatoes. If you want to try to keep your varieties from cross-pollinating, use a new swab for the flowers of other varieties you grow.
You should have little gardening work with this patio garden. Almost no weeds invade your containers and few ground bugs find their way up the buckets. You could put a layer of sticky tape, sticky side out, around the upper edges of the buckets. Nothing will crawl over that and into the buckets, at least as long as it remains sticky. Fertilization is no work at all, with the spikes.
Once you have your garden set up, you will reuse the buckets and dirt for years to come. The only thing you’ll need to buy is seed or plants. If you buy heirloom seed to begin with, you can even save your seed from year to year and avoid extra expense.
If you follow the above instructions, you should have an easy, cheap patio garden that will provide you with more fruits than you can eat. Your neighbors will enjoy your excess fruits and veggies.